Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

An Interview with Lise Funderburg

BY LIBERTY HULTBERG

Lise Funderburg is the author of Black, White, Other: Biracial Americans Talk About Race and Identity (1994) and the memoir Pig Candy (2008), which has been described as part memoir, part travelogue, and part social history, about race, mortality, filial duty…and barbecue. She has written numerous articles for publications including O Magazine, Self Magazine. She is a creative writing instructor at the University of Pennsylvania and resides in Philadelphia.

 

 

 

 

HMB: What prompted you to write Pig Candy? At what point did you know this needed to be a book?

LF: My dad got sick and almost died. I was in my late thirties, and I realized, suddenly, that he wasn’t going to be around forever. He recovered fully from that incident, but I realized there were things about my father that I just didn’t know because he’d been a very close-to-the-vest kind of person growing up. I wanted to figure out who he was; he was a curious combination of disparate elements. He was hardworking and reliable and charming and funny and unpredictable and cantankerous and mean and abusive. He was a very strict father, but in some ways he didn’t care about formalities at all. So who was this man and what made him tick?

I thought: Here’s this guy who’s so different from me demographically. He’s a man born in the twenties right before the Great Depression into the Jim Crow South in Monticello, a rural Georgia town. He grew up Black, and I grew up a mixed race girl in the integrated North in an urban environment during Civil Rights. There’s so much about what shaped his life that I don’t know anything about and how will I find this out? So I started to interview him. I was already a journalist, so I had this idea that maybe it was a book, but I didn’t really know what form the book was going to take. I interviewed him on safe subjects, which were his jobs; he was such a hardworking person that I thought this was something he’ll talk to me about, and it wouldn’t have the goopy, unpleasant (to him) qualities of emotion. But I could only get so close to something that felt really true about him with these stories. While I was doing these interviews we’d occasionally go down to his retirement place, which was a small farm in his hometown. That was curious to me, too, because why would he want to go back to this town? It was such a horrible place for a Black person to grow up. All he wanted to do was go there, and when he did he was a different person. He was happy there in a way that he did not demonstrate in other circumstances of his life. So that layered into this mystery of who-is-my-father, aside from just being my father. Who is he as a man, who is he as a person in a certain time, as a person of a certain generation? And then on top of that, why the hell does he want to go back to this place? So those questions (Who is he and what shaped him? And, Why is he so drawn to this place?) became the driving forces for the book and the answers end up being pretty commingled.

HMB: His desire to go down to Georgia—had you seen that before he had gotten sick? Or was the sickness an impetus for him to go more often?

LF: When he had his own company throughout my childhood and most of my young adulthood, he never took a vacation. Then, when he retired, he bought the farm down in Monticello and loved it from the start. He would go and spend six weeks in the fall and six weeks in the spring, and he’d have all these adventures. He’d rent a rooster so his second wife could hear the cock-a-doodle-doo every morning and then be faced with the problem at the end when the farmer didn’t want the rooster back. So he’s stuck: “Gosh, I have a rooster. I don’t know what to do with a rooster.” Because roosters are really mean—and this one was really mean and would attack my father every time he tried to go feed it—it was this whole debacle.

When he was diagnosed in 2004 with the return of prostate cancer that had been in remission for fifteen years, the urgency of wanting to go to the farm increased. As he got sicker, he needed more help going, so that would drag my sisters and me into it. Mostly me, because I had a flexible schedule. They had regular jobs and I was a freelance writer. I had started this project so it was justifiable to me to go down there. And I liked it. It was a curious, different world.

HMB: That definitely comes through in the book—your own growing affection for the area. What attracted you to it most, and do you still go and visit?

LF: We do still go and visit but not nearly as often as when my dad was alive. One piece of it is that it was so important to my dad. Another piece of the attraction was the novelty of it. It was so different from what I had grown up with. Some of that ties in, I think, to my experience as a biracial person, where I was fortunate enough to grow up connected to both sides of my family. There wasn’t ostracization, and so I was used to being a culture traveler. It was what was normal for me—to go across lines of groups that were unfamiliar with each other. Going to Georgia for me was just another adventure into another culture, and I’ve always been fascinated by other people’s cultures. In my first book, Black, White, Other, I focused on how different the experience of being mixed race can be for people. But if there are some commonalities of having that particular background, I think one opportunity biracial people have that is not true for everyone is that you get this gift of being able to see more than one truth as being true, of being able to see more than one person’s reality as having value, of not having to consider difference as always requiring some kind of degradation—that there doesn’t have to be a hierarchy, things can have the same currency but be different currencies. So that’s part of what I liked. It was just a different place.

HMB: In the book you mention how your father wasn’t as present in your life as your mother was at a certain point. So I wondered if you identified more white or Black, or if it really was heterogeneous because of your neighborhood.

LF: I grew up in a mixed neighborhood and it wasn’t just Black and white. As an adult I look back and I realize that I had, literally, a perverted childhood, in that it was out of the norm. There were so many different mixes of kids: Japanese and Black, Japanese and White, Assyrian and Black, White and Black, English and African. It communicated the possibility of what normal is in a way that so very few people get. So I had this distorted sense of the world. It was a great distortion, but it also meant realizing as an adult how hard that community is to find. I was just born into it because of a great choice my parents made. They might not have talked to us much about racial identity—the vocabulary didn’t exist then—and the public images of mixed-race people didn’t exist in the way they exist now with variety and different ways of people identifying, including our President Obama. They chose this place for us to live that sent a powerful daily message about what is normal—an extraordinary thing, and I feel very lucky about that. In terms of my own identity, I also was fortunate that we never moved. I never had to, as a kid at five or eight or 15, go into a new place and say, “Yeah I know my hair’s straight, but my dad’s Black.” Everybody I grew up with knew that. So all of the ways in which people put such heavy freight on race “characteristics”: the color of your eyes, the shape of your lips, the tone of your skin, the moon shapes under your fingernails, and we won’t even start with hair, right? I didn’t have to contend with that. My neighborhood was not utopia. There were still issues with class. More white people owned the nicer houses in the neighborhood than Black people, but it was really pretty mixed. Also, as a kid I remember a light-skinned Black boy teasing me and calling me “high yellow.” I didn’t care because I actually valued that he was recognizing that I had this background rather than just solely judging my physical appearance, which would for 99.99% of the world say I’m white. I grew up feeling mixed and connected to both backgrounds—feeling proud that I had Black ancestry, but also really aware that I looked white to most people and that’s why they were treating me the way they were treating me. Whether they were Black kids on my bus route from my school threatening to beat me up or white people saying things that I didn’t want to hear because they thought it wouldn’t bother me about somebody else. So, that’s basically my identity.

In doing my first book—that collection of oral histories of people talking about how they developed their sense of race, their own personal racial identity, and their feelings about race and the world and what it means or doesn’t mean—I felt selfish because it was fascinating for me. For people to let me into their lives and talk about such a deeply personal thing felt like an honor and something I had to treat very respectfully. I worked very, very hard to make sure that the way their words ended up appearing was a way in which they would recognize themselves and their opinions—that I wouldn’t distort. I was also very careful to try and help them protect themselves from saying something they might regret. I would double check and triple check with them in a way that you wouldn’t do when interviewing a public figure, say. On the record is on the record, but these were private citizens. One of the biggest personal gains I got out of it was affirmation, clear affirmation, that the fluidity of identity is healthy. Fluidity of identity can certainly be pathological if you have multiple personalities or it’s dysfunctional and violent. But in a much smaller sense, we all shift. None of us have a fixed identity. For some reason, biracial people are under the spotlight more than other people to make some choice that no one else has to make. If you have a Greek parent and Italian parent, you don’t get the same pressure to say, “Well, are you Greek or are you Italian?” Maybe from an aunt on one side of the family at some holiday gathering. If you’re Republican and a woman, no one says, “You have to decide whether you’re more Republican or more woman.” But race, particularly Black and white, is such a charged thing in American history—such a charged part of our identity as a country—that it’s extraordinary how invested people are in your identity. People do it within their own racial groups too: “Are you authentic? Is Obama authentically Black? Is Tiger Woods authentically Cablinasian?” There’s a lot of pressure brought to bear on mixed raced people, and some of the origins of that pressure I’m completely sympathetic with. So for example, the people who hear me say I look white and think, “she’s trying to pass,” I understand that the history of passing is really complicated, and there were times when people passed and it was cowardly or the result of a system that was so unfair for such ridiculous reasons. But, today, in this world, the truth is I look white. And I actually value it differently than the person who thinks I’m boasting or thinks I’m happy about that. As much as I can project into what might have been, I wish that my heritage were more visible because I am proud of it. But that’s just conjecture; I don’t know how my life would be different. So after talking to people for Black, White, Other, I really, really came to be this ardent believer that however a person chooses to identify is the correct identity, and if that changes from day to day, it’s still the correct identity. If I feel more this way one day and more that way another day, it’s all part of a whole. It’s not fractious. It’s not pathological.

HMB: …and it’s not necessarily play-acting.

LF: Right. I know exactly what you’re talking about.

HMB: Back to your father, do you feel that part of why he was so closed about his past to you before this because it was very painful growing up in that area—it was hard to revisit that place emotionally?

LF: I think it was not a happy past so he didn’t want to share it with us, partly because he wanted our world to be a better world. And he was of the mind that, “it’s over, it’s done, there’s no point in dwelling on it.” He took that approach to life to an extreme. There’s a part in Pig Candy where we get news that one of our closest family friends has died. I started to say, “I’m sad.” He says, “Don’t be sad! She lived a good life! She had good daughters! Celebrate!” He had no tolerance for dwelling—what he would consider dwelling on the past I would have called thinking through or processing. Maybe he wanted to protect us. Also, he wasn’t comfortable in his emotional self, and I guess it would have required that to talk about such things.

HMB: You did a remarkable job getting it from him and depicting it in a way I’m sure he would love. I think your book is a tribute. What kind of challenges did you face in writing about someone who, like you said, is so complex and sometimes aggravating and loving and all these conflicting characteristics? How did you do that?

LF: I just tried to figure out what I thought about him and then get that down. I thought he was really lovable and really horrible. I felt like in some fundamental core way it would have been disrespectful to have only depicted his positive traits. It just would not have honored the whole of him. I believe that a fair number of his really horrible behaviors were directly connected to or were an outgrowth of growing up under such a perverted, traumatic, oppressive regime, where a smart, independent-minded guy could see the fallacy in front of him. He could see with a kind of clarity that I think was painful to him. They grew up on Colored Folks Hill; his father was the Black doctor in town; their identity was clearly set in their town where everybody knows everybody back through generations. So there was no question in my dad’s environment growing up that he was Black. But he was really pale skinned. He was probably lighter skinned that some white people.

HMB: Yeah, I wondered if he were mixed when you said that earlier.

LF: Well, of course, like many African Americans he was mixed. But his parents were both African American and both of their parents were African American and then maybe right before that then you get a white shoemaker and a slave master with a slave and a Native American woman. So, how do you reconcile the treatment and even being called colored and Black when you aren’t? When you see that that’s a term that actually doesn’t relate to the reality of what you look like and yet it’s the basis of everything, of your opportunities in life; for example, the fact that your school was built out of the discarded lumber of the demolished white school, or that your school teaches you how to make outhouses instead of reading and math. How do you make sense of that? It could drive a person crazy. I don’t know anything really about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but I think my dad carried scars from that through his life. Learning more about his background and having a more acute, palpable sense of it by talking to people who he’d grown up with and knew him well and had gone through those things themselves, I also was able to develop more compassion for him. As my dad, he was extraordinarily and inappropriately, to my mind, strict. We were growing up in this hippie dippy neighborhood, and my dad was really strict. And now I look at how he grew up: That was survival. That was literally life and death—saying the wrong thing, doing the wrong thing. And it was on shifting sands. What you say to a white person might be fine one day and wrong the next. As his daughter, his concern for being accurate at all times seemed burdensome and punishing. But once I got a stronger sense of why that had been so crucial for his survival I just felt more sympathetic. I still don’t think it was the right way to raise me, but I’m more sympathetic to it. It made him more human, and I think that’s a lot of what the book was about. It was actually humanizing him because you think about your parents and it’s almost impossible for any of us to see them as anything but our parents.

HMB: Yeah, I struggle with that—depicting them as persons in their own right. I think that you mentioned that you brought in some of your journalistic training and interviewing other people (your father’s friends) and getting, in that sense, a wider perspective outside of your own.

LF: Yeah, that’s a really good strategy if you’re writing about someone very, very close to you. Even talking to siblings about a parent or parents about a sibling—other members of your own family will all see different things or value things differently. And that’s informative. It might not change your depiction of the character in the end, but it helps you. And what you’re trying to do when you’re writing personal material in a nonfiction context is not just reporting. You’re actually trying to take the raw experiences and emotions and shape them into art. One of the essential tools for crafting that—for transcending that umbilical connection you have to the material—is creating distance. You have to figure out how to distance yourself enough from the material to look at it critically.

HMB: That’s hard.

LF: It’s really hard. It’s hard and it’s essential.

HMB: I love all the various motifs you weave throughout the book, especially the lip-smacking descriptions of food, the Georgia pecans, pickled peaches, and of course the roasted pig. And I noticed on your Web site that you have some recipes up there and I thought that was really neat. I wondered if you could talk a little bit about how you decided to use food as an anchor for the story and if you’ve had a lot of requests for these recipes.

LF: Someone just today asked me about pickled peaches because he really wanted to try them. At the end of the book, I got my husband to write down his recipe for the marinade for the pig, which just amuses me because it’s a recipe for a hundred-pound pig. I think the chances of someone reading this and just happening to have a hundred pound pig on hand are slim. You know, bless them if they do. But it just was funny to me that this was the quantity we were thinking about. And then the pickled peaches—the recipe is actually from Mrs. Howard’s daughter, who has taken over the family canning. She’s the one who provides the pickled peaches in the book. I thought it would be great to have her. I was retooling my Web site in anticipation of the book coming out and thinking in an Internet-friendly way about what the site should be. I thought it should add value and add to the experience of the book. If you’d read Pig Candy or were curious, what could you find on the Web site that would be different? Well, of course: the recipe for the pickled peaches. That also allowed me to put in a plug for the Howard Sisters who sell in the Monticello Town Square on Saturdays. They sell fried pies and really delicious food. I don’t know how often someone will be reading the book and find themselves in Monticello’s Town Square, but I just thought I’d put it in there.

It was so natural for food to play a big part because it is a big part of the relationships in my family. There’s a lot of eating together, there’s a lot of enjoying kinds of food. There’s actually so little to do in Monticello that eating becomes a really big pastime. There’s no movie theater. There’s a CVS Drugstore, and that’s about it. There’s a Radio Shack. Plus, it’s Southern home cooking, which has a kind of clog-your-arteries, satisfying, salt-ridden, cholesterol-boosting allure to it. It’s like recognizing that race was going to be a part of the book. Or that attention to regionalism would be a part of the book. Food just is. It’s that fundamental. Plus, I like food, so some of it’s what I wanted– it was my book.

HMB: How did you decide to use the photos?

LF: As a journalist, I wanted to tell the story as fully as possible, and there were some moments that had been captured on film. My job as a writer was to describe things and render them as visually as possible so that people would feel like they were seeing a picture. But there were just some moments that were so stunningly visual that I wanted them to be in there, or they served as a kind of counterpoint to what was happening in the text. Writers are increasingly breaking away from the old conventions of how you either had no photographs at all, or if you had them they were all on glossy paper in the middle of the book. W.G. Sebald famously did that some years ago. And a friend of mine, the writer Daniel Mendelsohn, did it in The Lost, which is about looking for family who had perished in the Holocaust. I thought it added to the text, it didn’t replace it, and it wasn’t repetitive. It felt like something else all together. I didn’t use captions because I felt like each photograph had a mood to it that was enough. I don’t actually know if readers agree. I haven’t heard any complaints. The only complaint I’ve heard, which I agree with, is that some of them are just too small to register what’s going on.

HMB: I thought they were really effective, and I just love the one at the end of you as a child and your father. I just thought that spoke volumes. I love that.

LF: Yeah, it kind of makes me tear up when I look at it.